This Week’s Book Review – Silver State Dreadnought

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Silver State’ looks at a forgotten veteran

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 19, 2018

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 320 pages, $54

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Only one of eight battleships in the harbor raised steam and got underway. It was the battleship Nevada, the oldest dreadnought present.

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger tells the story of this ship.

The story Younger tells is remarkable. The Nevada served in two World Wars and the years between. It was continuously in commission from 1916 through 1945, except when undergoing refits, modernization, and repair. Sunk at Pearl Harbor, it was rebuilt and modernized. It provided gunnery support at the Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa invasions. Its career terminated dramatically, being expended at the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb test.

Younger adds much to this bare-bones recitation of the Nevada’s accomplishments. He carries readers through the ship’s history, from keel-laying to its ultimate sinking. He shows how the ship represented a new concept with U.S. battleships. It was the first to use “all or nothing” armor, with the central citadel containing the guns and engines heavily armored and the ends virtually unarmored. Younger also shows how Nevada’s first captain made the battleship the “cheer up!” ship, with an optimistic crew.

He follows the ship through World War I (where its deadliest enemy would prove influenza) and the interwar years, when it was extensively rebuilt. (Like the battleship Texas, Nevada was kept after its intended disposal date due to the 1922 Naval Limitations Treaty imposing a battleship building holiday.)

The high point of the book is Younger’s description of the Nevada’s sortie at Pearl Harbor. The ship steaming for the harbor’s exit attracted every Japanese aircraft of the last wave, damaging to where it had to be beached. Equally fascinating is the story of its repair. Younger describes how it was patched up, re-floated, and sent to the west coast, where it was almost completely rebuilt before it re-entered the war.

“Silver State Dreadnought” reminds readers of one of the forgotten veterans of World War II. Not as well-known as Texas or as well remembered as Arizona, Nevada’s story was equally compelling.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla

“Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla” by Carlos MarighellaCarlos Marighella joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1934, abandoning his studies in civil engineering to become a full time agitator for communism. He was arrested for subversion in 1936 and, after release from prison the following year, went underground. He was recaptured in 1939 and imprisoned until 1945 as part of an amnesty of political prisoners. He successfully ran for the federal assembly in 1946 but was removed from office when the Communist party was again banned in 1948. Resuming his clandestine life, he served in several positions in the party leadership and in 1953–1954 visited China to study the Maoist theory of revolution. In 1964, after a military coup in Brazil, he was again arrested, being shot in the process. After being once again released from prison, he broke with the Communist Party and began to advocate armed revolution against the military regime, travelling to Cuba to participate in a conference of Latin American insurgent movements. In 1968, he formed his own group, the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN) which, in September 1969, kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick, who was eventually released in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. In November 1969, Marighella was killed in a police ambush, prompted by a series of robberies and kidnappings by the ALN.

In June 1969, Marighella published this short book (or pamphlet: it is just 40 pages with plenty of white space at the ends of chapters) as a guide for revolutionaries attacking Brazil’s authoritarian regime in the big cities. There is little or no discussion of the reasons for the rebellion; the work is addressed to those already committed to the struggle who seek practical advice for wreaking mayhem in the streets. Marighella has entirely bought into the Mao/Guevara theory of revolution: that the ultimate struggle must take place in the countryside, with rural peasants rising en masse against the regime. The problem with this approach was that the peasants seemed to be more interested in eking out their subsistence from the land than taking up arms in support of ideas championed by a few intellectuals in the universities and big cities. So, Marighella’s guide is addressed to those in the cities with the goal of starting the armed struggle where there were people indoctrinated in the communist ideology on which it was based. This seems to suffer from the “step two problem”. In essence, his plan is:

  1. Blow stuff up, rob banks, and kill cops in the big cities.
  2. ?
  3. Communist revolution in the countryside.

The book is a manual of tactics: formation of independent cells operating on their own initiative and unable to compromise others if captured, researching terrain and targets and planning operations, mobility and hideouts, raising funds through bank robberies, obtaining weapons by raiding armouries and police stations, breaking out prisoners, kidnapping and exchange for money and prisoners, sabotaging government and industrial facilities, executing enemies and traitors, terrorist bombings, and conducting psychological warfare.

One problem with this strategy is that if you ignore the ideology which supposedly justifies and motivates this mayhem, it is essentially indistinguishable from the outside from the actions of non-politically-motivated outlaws. As the author notes,

The urban guerrilla is a man who fights the military dictatorship with arms, using unconventional methods. A political revolutionary, he is a fighter for his country’s liberation, a friend of the people and of freedom. The area in which the urban guerrilla acts is in the large Brazilian cities. There are also bandits, commonly known as outlaws, who work in the big cities. Many times assaults by outlaws are taken as actions by urban guerrillas.

The urban guerrilla, however, differs radically from the outlaw. The outlaw benefits personally from the actions, and attacks indiscriminately without distinguishing between the exploited and the exploiters, which is why there are so many ordinary men and women among his victims. The urban guerrilla follows a political goal and only attacks the government, the big capitalists, and the foreign imperialists, particularly North Americans.

These fine distinctions tend to be lost upon innocent victims, especially since the proceeds of the bank robberies of which the “urban guerrillas” are so fond are not used to aid the poor but rather to finance still more attacks by the ever-so-noble guerrillas pursuing their “political goal”.

This would likely have been an obscure and largely forgotten work of a little-known Brazilian renegade had it not been picked up, translated to English, and published in June and July 1970 by the Berkeley Tribe, a California underground newspaper. It became the terrorist bible of groups including Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, and Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Irish Republican Army, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. These groups embarked on crime and terror campaigns right out of Marighella’s playbook with no more thought about step two. They are largely forgotten now because their futile acts had no permanent consequences and their existence was an embarrassment to the élites who largely share their pernicious ideology but have chosen to advance it through subversion, not insurrection.

Kindle edition is available from a different publisher. You can read the book on-line for free at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Marighella, Carlos. Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1970] 2018. ISBN 978-1-4664-0680-3.

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This Week’s Book Review – Seapower States

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

How maritime culture affected historical events

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 4, 2018

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert, Yale University Press, 2018, 424 pages, $30

Free markets and representative government combined to create unprecedented wealth since 1800. During the 20th century, three major conflicts were won by the coalition better representing those two traits.

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert examines the roles maritime cultures play fostering progress. Lambert holds that nations depending on seapower must necessarily favor free trade and possess representative governments.

He examines five nations that became world powers through embracing maritime culture and seapower: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. All five gained power through trade — and more importantly, exchange of ideas. He argues they achieved this because all five had decentralized, representative governments made up of people whose livelihood depended on trade. This allowed the best ideas and the best leaders to rise to the top.

He also examines the major rivals of each state — continental powers favoring a strong central government with a command economy set by that government: Persia and Sparta against Athens, Rome against Carthage, Imperial (and later Revolutionary) France against Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. He explores the wars fought between the rival piers and what led to victory or defeat in each case.

Lambert differentiates between seapower (controlling the sea and trade on it) and naval power (possessing a strong navy). Continental powers can build and sustain strong navies (as did Rome and Russia in examples given in his book) and even defeat seapowers with their navies. But while seapowers use their navies to protect trade, continental powers use their navies to project land power. Rome invaded Africa, and Russia used its fleets to flank Sweden and the Ottomans.

He also examines sea states, nations which developed seapower, but didn’t become dominating nations. These include the ancient Phoenician cities of the Levant coast, Rhodes, and Genoa.

Lambert argues what makes seapower states dangerous to continental states is they foster innovation. This is destabilizing, as new technologies often undermine the authority of central governments. “Seapower States” offers insight into the direction the modern world may take due to tensions between liberty and centralization.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Sean Hannity and Busted at the Border

Caravan Update…..
Just in case you have not been aware….

Sean Hannity: An important reminder about why strong borders, the rule of law, and the wall are so important.

And just today….

More than a dozen members of the migrant caravan were arrested Wednesday night along U.S.-Tijuana border, a border patrol source in the San Diego sector told Fox News.

This don’t look good…..

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The Spy and the Traitor

This book tells the story of KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky who spied for the British during the Cold War.  Ames revealed his identity to the Soviets and the British smuggled him to Finland through the Soviet check points in July 1985.  If this story was a novel, no one would believe it.  I highly recommend this book.

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The Weight of Sacrifice

NY sculptor Sabin Howard describes the WWI memorial sculpture he is commissioned to create for Pershing Park in Washington, DC.  This video is 12 minutes long but he walks you through the maquette of the sculpture in the first 6 minutes, and even if you just watch that much, you will see it’s breathtaking and classically beautiful. It will be 65 feet long when completed, and a magnificent memorial to our soldiers of the Great War; it’s title is “The Weight of Sacrifice.”.

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Book Review: With the Old Breed

“With the Old Breed” by E. B. SledgeWhen the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the author was enrolled at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama preparing for an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army. Worried that the war might end before he was able to do his part, in December, 1942, still a freshman at Marion, he enrolled in a Marine Corps officer training program. The following May, after the end of his freshman year, he was ordered to report for Marine training at Georgia Tech on July 1, 1943. The 180 man detachment was scheduled to take courses year-round then, after two years, report to Quantico to complete their officers’ training prior to commission.

This still didn’t seem fast enough (and, indeed, had he stayed with the program as envisioned, he would have missed the war), so he and around half of his fellow trainees neglected their studies, flunked out, and immediately joined the Marine Corps as enlisted men. Following boot camp at a base near San Diego, he was assigned to infantry and sent to nearby Camp Elliott for advanced infantry training. Although all Marines are riflemen (Sledge had qualified at the sharpshooter level during basic training), newly-minted Marine infantrymen were, after introduction to all of the infantry weapons, allowed to choose the one in which they would specialise. In most cases, they’d get their first or second choice. Sledge got his first: the 60 mm M2 mortar which he, as part of a crew of three, would operate in combat in the Pacific. Mortarmen carried the M1 carbine, and this weapon, which fired a less powerful round than the M1 Garand main battle rifle used by riflemen, would be his personal weapon throughout the war.

With the Pacific island-hopping war raging, everything was accelerated, and on February 28th, 1944, Sledge’s 46th Replacement Battalion (the name didn’t inspire confidence—they would replace Marines killed or injured in combat, or the lucky few rotated back to the U.S. after surviving multiple campaigns) shipped out, landing first at New Caledonia, where they received additional training, including practice amphibious landings and instruction in Japanese weapons and tactics. At the start of June, Sledge’s battalion was sent to Pavuvu island, base of the 1st Marine Division, which had just concluded the bloody battle of Cape Gloucester.

On arrival, Sledge was assigned as a replacement to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion. This unit had a distinguished combat record dating back to the First World War, and would have been his first choice if he’d been given one, which he hadn’t. He says, “I felt as though I had rolled the dice and won.” This was his first contact with what he calls the “Old Breed”: Marines, some of whom had been in the Corps before Pearl Harbor, who had imbibed the traditions of the “Old Corps” and survived some of the most intense combat of the present conflict, including Guadalcanal. Many of these veterans had, in the argot of the time, “gone Asiatic”: developed the eccentricities of who had seen and lived things those just arriving in theatre never imagined, and become marinated in deep hatred for the enemy based upon personal experience. A glance was all it took to tell the veterans from the replacements.

After additional training, in late August the Marines embarked for the assault on the island of Peleliu in the Palau Islands. The tiny island, just 13 square kilometres, was held by a Japanese garrison of 10,900, and was home to an airfield. Capturing the island was considered essential to protect the right flank of MacArthur’s forces during the upcoming invasion of the Philippines, and to secure the airfield which could support the invasion. The attack on Peleliu was fixed for 15 September 1944, and it would be Sledge’s first combat experience.

From the moment of landing, resistance was fierce. Despite an extended naval bombardment, well-dug-in Japanese defenders engaged the Marines as they hit the beaches, and continued as they progressed into the interior. In previous engagements with the Japanese, they had adopted foolhardy and suicidal tactics such as mass frontal “banzai” charges into well-defended Marine positions. By Peleliu, however, they had learned that this did not work, and shifted their strategy to defence in depth, turning the entire island into a network of defensive positions, covering one another, and linked by tunnels for resupply and redeploying forces. They were prepared to defend every square metre of territory to the death, even after their supplies were cut off and there was no hope of relief. Further, Marines were impressed by the excellent fire discipline of the Japanese—they did not expend ammunition firing blindly but chose their shots carefully, and would expend scarce supplies such as mortar rounds only on concentrations of troops or high value targets such as tanks and artillery.

This, combined with the oppressive heat and humidity, lack of water and food, and terror from incessant shelling by artillery by day and attacks by Japanese infiltrators by night, made the life of the infantry a living Hell. Sledge chronicles this from the viewpoint of a Private First Class, not an officer or historian after the fact. He and his comrades rarely knew precisely where they were, where the enemy was located, how other U.S. forces on the island were faring, or what the overall objectives of the campaign were. There was simply a job to be done, day by day, with their best hope being to somehow survive it. Prior to the invasion, Marine commanders estimated the island could be taken in four days. Rarely in the Pacific war was a forecast so wrong. In fact, it was not until November 27th that the island was declared secured. The Japanese demonstrated their willingness to defend to the last man. Of the initial force of 10,900 defending the island, 10,695 were killed. Of the 220 taken prisoner, 183 were foreign labourers, and only 19 were Japanese soldiers and sailors. Of the Marine and Army attackers, 2,336 were killed and 8,450 wounded. The rate of U.S. casualties exceeded those of all other amphibious landings in the Pacific, and the Battle of Peleliu is considered among the most difficult ever fought by the Marine Corps.

Despite this, the engagement is little-known. In retrospect, it was probably unnecessary. The garrison could have done little to threaten MacArthur’s forces and the airfield was not required to support the Philippine campaign. There were doubts about the necessity and wisdom of the attack before it was launched, but momentum carried it forward. None of these matters concerned Sledge and the other Marines in the line—they had their orders, and they did their job, at enormous cost. Sledge’s company K landed on Peleliu with 235 men. It left with only 85 unhurt—a 64% casualty rate. Only two of its original seven officers survived the campaign. Sledge was now a combat veteran. He may not have considered himself one of the “Old Breed”, but he was on the way to becoming one of them to the replacements who arrived to replace casualties in his unit.

But for the survivors of Peleliu, the war was far from over. While some old-timers for whom Peleliu was their third campaign were being rotated Stateside, for the rest it was recuperation, refitting, and preparation for the next amphibious assault: the Japanese island of Okinawa. Unlike Peleliu, which was a tiny dot on the map, Okinawa was a large island with an area of 1207 square kilometres and a pre-war population of around 300,000. The island was defended by 76,000 Japanese troops and 20,000 Okinawan conscripts fighting under their orders. The invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945 was the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific war.

As before, Sledge does not present the big picture, but an infantryman’s eye view. To the astonishment of all involved, including commanders who expected 80–85% casualties on the beaches, the landing was essentially unopposed. The Japanese were dug in awaiting the attack from prepared defensive positions inland, ready to repeat the strategy at Peleliu on a much grander scale.

After the tropical heat and horrors of Peleliu, temperate Okinawa at first seemed a pastoral paradise afflicted with the disease of war, but as combat was joined and the weather worsened, troops found themselves confronted with the infantryman’s implacable, unsleeping enemy: mud. Once again, the Japanese defended every position to the last man. Almost all of the Japanese defenders were killed, with the 7000 prisoners made up mostly of Okinawan conscripts. Estimates of U.S. casualties range from 14,000 to 20,000 killed and 38,000 to 55,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were heavy: of the original population of around 300,000 estimates of civilian deaths are from 40,000 to 150,000.

The Battle of Okinawa was declared won on June 22, 1945. What was envisioned as the jumping-off point for the conquest of the Japanese home islands became, in retrospect, almost an afterthought, as Japan surrendered less than two months after the conclusion of the battle. The impact of the Okinawa campaign on the war is debated to this day. Viewed as a preview of what an invasion of the home islands would have been, it strengthened the argument for using the atomic bomb against Japan (or, if it didn’t work, burning Japan to the ground with round the clock raids from Okinawa airbases by B-17s transferred from the European theatre). But none of these strategic considerations were on the mind of Sledge and his fellow Marines. They were glad to have survived Okinawa and elated when, not long thereafter, the war ended and they could look forward to going home.

This is a uniquely authentic first-hand narrative of World War II combat by somebody who lived it. After the war, E. B. Sledge pursued his education, eventually earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where he taught zoology, ornithology, and comparative anatomy until his retirement in 1990. He began the memoir which became this book in 1944. He continued to work on it after the war and, at the urging of family, finally prepared it for publication in 1981. The present edition includes an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson.

Sledge, E[ugene] B[ondurant]. With the Old Breed. New York: Presidio Press, [1981] 2007. ISBN 978-0-89141-906-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Secret World

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Secret World’ a history of spying

By MARK LARDAS

Sep 4, 2018

“The Secret World: A History of Intelligence,” by Christopher Andrew, Yale University Press, 2018, 960 pages, $40

It is sometimes said spying is the second oldest profession.

“The Secret World: A History of Intelligence,” by Christopher Andrew underscores the claim. It is a history of spying from the earliest days to the present.

Andrew starts with the first recorded accounts of spying, related in the Bible. He finished with the role of intelligence in the War on Terror. He attempts to cover all significant intelligence operations between those boundaries.

His goal was to create the first comprehensive history of espionage and intelligence gathering. He contends intelligence suffers from long-term historical amnesia because it fails to understand its own history. He shows how secrecy and compartmentalization forces intelligence gatherers to relearn the same historic lessons over and over again.

He shows repeated instances where disdain for intelligence lost wars and effective intelligence won wars that should have been lost. The examples he gives span history. He shows how the careful intelligence of the Israelites helped them gain their Promised Land. Roman reliance on augury and contempt for gathering information about German tribes cost Rome three legions — and Germania.

In more modern times, Queen Elizabeth I’s intelligence service allowed England to survive against Spain’s superior power. George Washington skilled use of intelligence helped the Continental Army avoid defeat and ultimately win over England. Intelligence failures cost Napoleon victory against Russia in 1812, leading to his ultimate defeat.

The technology of intelligence is also examined. Andrew reveals tools and techniques used by spies throughout history. He shows how codes and codebreaking emerged in ancient and medieval times, and evolved today. He shows how SIGINT (signal intelligence), HUMIT (human intelligence — eyes on the ground) and intelligence interpretation work together.

At nearly 1,000 pages, the book can serve as a doorstop. Despite its length, it is very readable. Those not ready to sit down with a book this length should treat it as three or four linked books: Ancient and Medieval World, Renaissance and Reformation, 18th and 19th centuries, and 20th century to Present. Reading it that way makes it digestible. “The Secret World” is far too good a book to miss.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Saturday Night Science: The Taking of K-129

 

“The Taking of K-129” by Josh DeanOn February 24, 1968, Soviet Golf class submarine K-129 sailed from its base in Petropavlovsk for a routine patrol in the Pacific Ocean. These ballistic missile submarines were, at the time, a key part of the Soviet nuclear deterrent. Each carried three SS-N-5 missiles armed with one 800 kiloton nuclear warhead per missile. This was an intermediate range missile which could hit targets inside an enemy country if the submarine approached sufficiently close to the coast. For defence and attacking other ships, Golf class submarines carried two torpedoes with nuclear warheads as well as conventional high explosive warhead torpedoes.

Unlike the U.S. nuclear powered Polaris submarines, the Golf class had conventional diesel-electric propulsion. When submerged, the submarine was powered by batteries which provided limited speed and range and required surfacing or running at shallow snorkel depth for regular recharging by the diesel engines. They would be the last generation of Soviet diesel-electric ballistic missile submarines: the Hotel class and subsequent boats would be nuclear powered.

K-129’s mission was to proceed stealthily to a region of open ocean north of Midway Atoll and patrol there, ready to launch its missiles at U.S. assets in the Pacific in case of war. Submarines on patrol would send coded burst transmissions on a prearranged schedule to indicate that their mission was proceeding as planned.

On March 8, a scheduled transmission from K-129 failed to arrive. This wasn’t immediately cause for concern, since equipment failure was not uncommon, and a submarine commander might choose not to transmit if worried that surfacing and sending the message might disclose his position to U.S. surveillance vessels and aircraft. But when K-129 remained silent for a second day, the level of worry escalated rapidly. Losing a submarine armed with nuclear weapons was a worst-case scenario, and one which had never happened in Soviet naval operations.

A large-scale search and rescue fleet of 24 vessels, including four submarines, set sail from the base in Kamchatka, all communicating in the open on radio and pinging away with active sonar. They were heard to repeatedly call a ship named Red Star with no reply. The search widened, and eventually included thirty-six vessels and fifty-three aircraft, continuing over a period of seventy-three days. Nothing was found, and six months after the disappearance, the Soviet Navy issued a statement that K-129 had been lost while on duty in the Pacific with all on board presumed dead. This was not only a wrenching emotional blow to the families of the crew, but also a financial gut-shot, depriving them of the pension due families of men lost in the line of duty and paying only the one-time accidental death payment and partial pension for industrial accidents.

But if the Soviets had no idea where their submarine was, this was not the case for the U.S. Navy. Sound travels huge distances through the oceans, and starting in the 1950s, the U.S. began to install arrays of hydrophones (undersea sound detectors) on the floors of the oceans around the world. By the 1960s, these arrays, called SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) were deployed and operational in both the Atlantic and Pacific and used to track the movements of Soviet submarines. When K-129 went missing, SOSUS analysts went back over their archived data and found a sharp pulse just a few seconds after midnight local time on March 11 around 180° West and 40° North: 2500 km northeast of Hawaii. Not only did the pulse appear nothing like the natural sounds often picked up by SOSUS, events like undersea earthquakes don’t tend to happen at socially constructed round number times and locations like this one. The pulse was picked up by multiple sensors, allowing its position to be determined accurately. The U.S. knew where the K-129 lay on the ocean floor. But what to do with that knowledge?

One thing was immediately clear. If the submarine was in reasonably intact condition, it would be an intelligence treasure unparalleled in the postwar era. Although it did not represent the latest Soviet technology, it would provide analysts their first hands-on examination of Soviet ballistic missile, nuclear weapon, and submarine construction technologies. Further, the boat would certainly be equipped with cryptographic and secure radio communications gear which might provide an insight into penetrating the secret communications to and from submarines on patrol. (Recall that British breaking of the codes used to communicate with German submarines in World War II played a major part in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.) But a glance at a marine chart showed how daunting it would be to reach the site of the wreck. The ocean in the vicinity of the co-ordinates identified by SOSUS was around 5000 metres deep. Only a very few special-purpose research vessels can operate at such a depth, where the water pressure is around 490 times that of the atmosphere at sea level.

The U.S. intelligence community wanted that sub. The first step was to make sure they’d found it. The USS Halibut, a nuclear-powered Regulus cruise missile launching submarine converted for special operations missions, was dispatched to the area where the K-129 was thought to lie. Halibut could not dive anywhere near as deep as the ocean floor, but was equipped with a remote-controlled, wire-tethered “fish”, which could be lowered near the bottom and then directed around the search area, observing with side-looking sonar and taking pictures. After seven weeks searching in vain, with fresh food long exhausted and crew patience wearing thin, the search was abandoned and course set back to Pearl Harbor.

But the prize was too great to pass up. So Halibut set out again, and after another month of operating the fish, developing thousands of pictures, and fraying tempers, there it was! Broken into two parts, but with both apparently largely intact, lying on the ocean bottom. Now what?

While there were deep sea research vessels able to descend to such depths, they were completely inadequate to exploit the intelligence haul that K-129 promised. That would require going inside the structure, dismantling the missiles and warheads, examining and testing the materials, and searching for communications and cryptographic gear. The only way to do this was to raise the submarine. To say that this was a challenge is to understate its difficulty—adjectives fail. The greatest mass which had ever been raised from such a depth was around 50 tonnes and K-129 had a mass of 1,500 tonnes—thirty times greater. But hey, why not? We’re Americans! We’ve landed on the Moon! (By then it was November, 1969, four months after that “one small step”.) And so, Project Azorian was born.

When it comes to doing industrial-scale things in the deep ocean, all roads (or sea lanes) lead to Global Marine. A publicly-traded company little known to those outside the offshore oil exploration industry, this company and its genius naval architect John Graham had pioneered deep-sea oil drilling. While most offshore oil rigs, like those on terra firma, were firmly anchored to the land around the drill hole, Global Marine had pioneered the technology which allowed a ship, with a derrick mounted amidships, to precisely station-keep above the bore-hole on the ocean floor far beneath the ship. The required dropping sonar markers on the ocean floor which the ship used to precisely maintain its position with respect to them. This was just one part of the puzzle.

To recover the submarine, the ship would need to lower what amounted to a giant claw (“That’s claw, not craw!”, you “Get Smart” fans) to the abyssal plain, grab the sub, and lift its 1500 tonne mass to the surface. During the lift, the pipe string which connected the ship to the claw would be under such stress that, should it break, it would release energy comparable to an eight kiloton nuclear explosion, which would be bad.

This would have been absurdly ambitious if conducted in the open, like the Apollo Project, but in this case it also had to be done covertly, since the slightest hint that the U.S. was attempting to raise K-129 would almost certainly provoke a Soviet response ranging from diplomatic protests to a naval patrol around the site of the sinking aimed at harassing the recovery ships. The project needed a cover story and a cut-out to hide the funding to Global Marine which, as a public company, had to disclose its financials quarterly and, unlike minions of the federal government funded by taxes collected from hairdressers and cab drivers through implicit threat of violence, could not hide its activities in a “black budget”.

This was seriously weird and, as a contemporary philosopher said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” At the time, nobody was more professionally weird than Howard Hughes. He had taken reclusion to a new level, utterly withdrawing from contact with the public after revulsion from dealing with the Washington swamp and the media. His company still received royalties from every oil well drilled using his drill bits, and his aerospace and technology companies were plugged into the most secret ventures of the U.S. government. Simply saying, “It’s a Hughes project” was sufficient to squelch most questions. This meant it had unlimited funds, the sanction of the U.S. government (including three-letter agencies whose names must not be spoken [brrrr!]), and told pesky journalists they’d encounter a stone wall from the centre of the Earth to the edge of the universe if they tried to dig into details.

Hughes Glomar Explorer

But covert as the project might be, aspects of its construction and operation would unavoidably be in the public eye. You can’t build a 189 metre long, 51,000 tonne ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, with an 80 metre tall derrick sticking up amidships, at a shipyard on the east coast of the U.S., send it around Cape Horn to its base on the west coast (the ship was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal), without people noticing. A cover story was needed, and the CIA and their contractors cooked up a doozy.

Large areas of the deep sea floor are covered by manganese nodules, concretions which form around a seed and grow extremely slowly, but eventually reach the size of potatoes or larger. Nodules are composed of around 30% manganese, plus other valuable metals such as nickel, copper, and cobalt. There are estimated to be more than 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules on the deep ocean floor (depths of 4000 to 6000 metres), and their composition is richer than many of the ores from which the metals they contain are usually extracted. Further, they’re just lying on the seabed. If you could figure out how to go down there and scoop them up, you wouldn’t have to dig mines and process huge amounts of rock. Finally, they were in international waters, and despite attempts by kleptocratic dictators (some in landlocked countries) and the international institutions who support them to enact a “Law of the Sea” treaty to pick the pockets of those who created the means to use this resource, at the time the nodules were just there for the taking—you didn’t have to pay kleptocratic dictators for mining rights or have your profits skimmed by ever-so-enlightened democratic politicians in developed countries.

So, the story was put out that Howard Hughes was setting out to mine the nodules on the Pacific Ocean floor, and that Glomar Explorer, built by Global Marine under contract for Hughes (operating, of course, as a cut-out for the CIA), would deploy a robotic mining barge called the Hughes Mining Barge 1 (HMB-1) which, lowered to the ocean floor, would collect nodules, crush them, and send the slurry to the surface for processing on the mother ship.

This solved a great number of potential problems. Global Marine, as a public company, could simply (and truthfully) report that it was building Glomar Explorer under contract to Hughes, and had no participation in the speculative and risky mining venture, which would have invited scrutiny by Wall Street analysts and investors. Hughes, operating as a proprietorship, was not required to disclose the source of the funds it was paying Global Marine. Everybody assumed the money was coming from Howard Hughes’ personal fortune, which he had invested, over his career, in numerous risky ventures, when in fact, he was simply passing through money from a CIA black budget account. The HMB-1 was built by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company under contract from Hughes. Lockheed was involved in numerous classified U.S. government programs, so operating in the same manner for the famously secretive Hughes raised few eyebrows.

The barge, 99 metres in length, was built in a giant enclosed hangar in the port of Redwood City, California, which shielded it from the eyes of curious onlookers and Soviet reconnaissance satellites passing overhead. This was essential, because a glance at what was being built would have revealed that it looked nothing like a mining barge but rather a giant craw—sorry—claw! To install the claw on the ship, it was towed, enclosed in its covered barge, to a location near Catalina Island in southern California, where deeper water allowed it to be sunk beneath the surface, and then lifted into the well (“moon pool”) of Glomar Explorer, all out of sight to onlookers.

So far, the project had located the target on the ocean floor, designed and built a special ship and retrieval claw to seize it, fabricated a cover story of a mining venture so persuasive other mining companies were beginning to explore launching their own seabed mining projects, and evaded scrutiny by the press, Congress, and Soviet intelligence assets. But these are pussycats compared to the California Tax Nazis! After the first test of mating the claw to the ship, Glomar Explorer took to the ocean to, it was said, test the stabilisation system which would keep the derrick vertical as the ship pitched and rolled in the sea. Actually, the purpose of the voyage was to get the ship out of U.S. territorial waters on March 1st, the day California assessed a special inventory tax on all commercial vessels in state waters. This would not only cost a lot of money, it would force disclosure of the value of the ship, which could be difficult to reconcile with its cover mission. Similar fast footwork was required when Hughes took official ownership of the vessel from Global Marine after acceptance. A trip outside U.S. territorial waters was also required to get off the hook for the 7% sales tax California would otherwise charge on the transfer of ownership.

Finally, in June 1974, all was ready, and Glomar Explorer with HMB-1 attached set sail from Long Beach, California to the site of K-129’s wreck, arriving on site on the Fourth of July, only to encounter foul weather. Opening the sea doors in the well in the centre of the ship and undocking the claw required calm seas, and it wasn’t until July 18th that they were ready to begin the main mission. Just at that moment, what should show up but a Soviet missile tracking ship. After sending its helicopter to inspect Explorer, it eventually departed. This wasn’t the last of the troubles with pesky Soviets.

On July 21, the recovery operation began, slowly lowering the claw on its string of pipes. Just at this moment, another Soviet ship arrived, a 47 metre ocean-going tug called SB-10. This tug would continue to harass the recovery operation for days, approaching on an apparent collision course and then veering off. (Glomar Explorer could not move during the retrieval operation, being required to use its thrusters to maintain its position directly above the wrecked submarine on the bottom.)

On August 3, the claw reached the bottom and its television cameras revealed it was precisely on target—there was the submarine, just as it had been photographed by the Halibut six years earlier. The claw gripped the larger part of the wreck, its tines closed under it, and a combination of pistons driving against the ocean bottom and the lift system pulling on the pipe from the ship freed the submarine from the bottom. Now the long lift could begin.

Everything had worked. The claw had been lowered, found its target on the first try, successfully seized it despite the ocean bottom’s being much harder than expected, freed it from the bottom, and the ship had then successfully begun to lift the 6.4 million kg of pipe, claw, and submarine back toward the surface. Within the first day of the lift, more than a third of the way to the surface, with the load on the heavy lift equipment diminishing by 15 tonnes as each segment of lift pipe was removed from the string, a shudder went through the ship and the heavy lift equipment lurched violently. Something had gone wrong, seriously wrong. Examination of television images from the claw revealed that several of the tines gripping the hull of the submarine had failed and part of the sub, maybe more than half, had broken off and fallen back toward the abyss. (It was later decided that the cause of the failure was that the tines had been fabricated from maraging steel, which is very strong but brittle, rather than a more ductile alloy which would bend under stress but not break.)

After consultation with CIA headquarters, it was decided to continue the lift and recover whatever was left in the claw. (With some of the tines broken and the mechanism used to break the load free of the ocean floor left on the bottom, it would have been impossible to return and recover the lost part of the sub on this mission.) On August 6th, the claw and its precious payload reached the ship and entered the moon pool in its centre. Coincidentally, the Soviet tug departed the scene the same day. Now it was possible to assess what had been recovered, and the news was not good: two thirds of the sub had been lost, including the ballistic missile tubes and the code room. Only the front third was in the claw. Further, radiation five times greater than background was detected even outside the hull—those exploring it would have to proceed carefully.

An “exploitation team” composed of CIA specialists and volunteers from the ship’s crew began to explore the wreckage, photographing and documenting every part recovered. They found the bodies of six Soviet sailors and assorted human remains which could not be identified; all went to the ship’s morgue. Given that the bow portion of the submarine had been recovered, it is likely that one or more of its torpedoes equipped with nuclear warheads were recovered, but to this day the details of what was found in the wreck remain secret. By early September, the exploitation was complete and the bulk of the recovered hull, less what had been removed and sent for analysis, was dumped in the deep ocean 160 km south of Hawaii.

One somber task remained. On September 4, 1974, the remains of the six recovered crewmen and the unidentified human remains were buried at sea in accordance with Soviet Navy tradition. A video tape of this ceremony was made and, in 1992, a copy was presented to Russian President Boris Yeltsin by then CIA director Robert Gates.

The partial success encouraged some in the CIA to mount a follow-up mission to recover the rest of the sub, including the missiles and code room. After all, they knew precisely where it was, had a ship in hand, fully paid for, which had successfully lowered the claw to the bottom and returned to the surface with part of the sub, and they knew what had gone wrong with the claw and how to fix it. The effort was even given a name, Project Matador. But it was not to be.

Over the five years of the project there had been leaks to the press and reporters sniffing on the trail of the story but the CIA had been able to avert disclosure by contacting the reporters directly, explaining the importance of the mission and need for secrecy, and offering them an exclusive of full disclosure and permission to publish it before the project was officially declassified for the general public. This had kept a lid on the secret throughout the entire development process and the retrieval and analysis, but this all came to an end in March 1975 when Jack Anderson got wind of the story. There was no love lost between Anderson and what we now call the Deep State. Anderson believed the First Amendment was divinely inspired and absolute, while J. Edgar Hoover had called Anderson “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures”. Further, this was a quintessential Jack Anderson story—based upon his sources, he presented Project Azorian as a US$ 350 million failure which had produced no useful intelligence information and was being kept secret only to cover up the squandering of taxpayers’ money.

New York Times Azorian story by Seymour HershCIA Director William Colby offered Anderson the same deal other journalists had accepted, but was flatly turned down. Five minutes before Anderson went on the radio to break the story, Colby was still pleading with him to remain silent. On March 18, 1975, Anderson broke the story on his Mutual Radio Network show and, the next day, published additional details in his nationally syndicated newspaper column. Realising the cover had been blown, Colby called all of the reporters who had agreed to hold the story to give them the green light to publish. Seymour Hersh of the New York Times had his story ready to go, and it ran on the front page of the next day’s paper, providing far more detail (albeit along with a few errors) than Anderson’s disclosure. Hersh revealed that he had been aware of the project since 1973 but had agreed to withhold publication in the interest of national security.

The story led newspaper and broadcast news around the country and effectively drove a stake through any plans to mount a follow-up retrieval mission. On June 16, 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a formal recommendation to president Gerald Ford to terminate the project and that was the end of it. The Soviets had communicated through a back channel that they had no intention of permitting a second retrieval attempt and they had maintained an ocean-going tug on site to monitor any activity since shortly after the story broke in the U.S.

The CIA’s official reaction to all the publicity was what has come to be called the “Glomar Response”: “We can neither confirm nor can we deny.” And that is where things stand more that four decades after the retrieval attempt. Although many of those involved in the project have spoken informally about aspects of it, there has never been an official report on precisely what was recovered or what was learned from it. Some CIA veterans have said, off the record, that much more was learned from the recovered material than has been suggested in press reports, with a few arguing that the entire large portion of the sub was recovered and the story about losing much of it was a cover story. (But if this was the case, the whole plan to mount a second retrieval mission and the substantial expense repairing and upgrading the claw for the attempt, which is well documented, would also have to have been a costly cover story.)

What is certain is that Project Azorian was one of the most daring intelligence exploits in history, carried out in total secrecy under the eyes of the Soviets, and kept secret from an inquiring press for five years by a cover story so persuasive other mining companies bought it hook, line, and sinker. We may never know all the details of the project, but from what we do know it is a real-world thriller which equals or exceeds those imagined by masters of the fictional genre.

Dean, Josh. The Taking of K-129. New York: Dutton, 2012. ISBN 978-1-101-98443-7.

Here is a Discovery Channel documentary (complete with cheesy period commercials) about Project Azorian and the recovery of K-129.  A portion of the burial at sea of the Soviet crew is shown at the end.

John Evans was Vice President of Global Marine during the project.  In this talk he gives his personal reminiscences of the project, declining to comment on information which has not become public from other sources.

This educational film was produced while the K-129 recovery project was underway.  Purporting to be about deep sea mining, it presents the cover story for Glomar Explorer, including bogus film of a supposed mining barge which was never used with the ship.

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TOTD 2018-8-19: Fighting War World II

I remember a friend telling me that WW2 was fought with paper and typewriters. That got me thinking of the other things that were lacking that we take for granted. Here is a list.

  1. Pallets and Containers (They used a lot of cargo nets at that time. A lot was moved by  hand.)
  2. Copy machines (I think carbon paper did most of this work.)
  3. Cell phones (They had walkie-talkies but they were cumbersome.)
  4. Helicopters (It took a lot of time to get the wounded to the hospital.)
  5. E-mail (People wrote letters that took weeks or longer to get to people.)
  6. Good weather forecasts (This can really help if you are in the middle of an ocean.)

What am I missing? Oh, there was no CNN.

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